Presenting a new Escape from Furnace story, “The Night Children,” by Alexander Gordon Smith.
It is December 1944 and Europe is still gripped by war. In the densely forested mountains of Belgium one of the conflict’s most brutal battles is raging. Cut off from the front, a ragtag group of young British and American soldiers finds itself being hunted by a patrol of elite German Special Forces, including a newly commissioned officer called Kreuz—a teenage boy who will grow up to become Warden Cross (the fearsome prison director who will one day rule Furnace Penitentiary, the terrifying underground prison specially built for teen offenders).
As both sides fight for their lives in the unforgiving terrain, however, they start to realize that there are worse things hiding in the snow than soldiers. There are creatures out there with gas masks and piggy eyes (ancestors of Furnace prison’s “wheezers”)—demonic entities that cannot be killed by guns and grenades, monsters who do not care what uniforms their victims are wearing so long as they bleed, and so long as they scream...
The Ardennes, Belgium, 16 December 1944
He had always thought that hell would be hot. But here they were, right inside the mouth of it, and it was freezing.
Splintered trees littered the icy ground like loose teeth, branches embedded in blackened, gum-like craters. Overhead roiled a sky of smoke, as thick as rock, as if the whole world were being engulfed by a cavernous maw. The air carried the stench of death, of misted blood, of terror, a breath that seemed to rise right from the gullet of the underworld. And there was deafening laughter, too, a series of barked explosions that rocked the forest like some demonic chuckle.
Corporal Donnie Brixton crouched in his foxhole, too numb to feel the cold anymore. Pressed up against him on one side was Eddie Argento, and on the other Michael Levy, the same tremor passing through all three men. They faced south, where fire blistered the trees a half-mile away. Another explosion detonated in the middle of the inferno, turning night into day, the shock wave forcing drifts of snow to rise up and dance around them.
Donnie couldn’t remember the last time anybody had spoken, or moved. They could have been fixed here for years, for a lifetime, statues discarded in the forest. The only reminder of life was the clouds of breath squeezed from blue lips, which floated momentarily toward the distant chaos before rising abruptly, escaping. Donnie watched them go and felt that with each exhalation he was watching a little piece of his soul drift away.
But that was okay, because surely here it was better not to have a soul.
More explosions, three, four, the light so bright that Donnie had to squint. Something more than mortars. More than artillery. Tigers, maybe. Whatever it was, nothing could be left alive back there. Which meant the platoon was gone, which meant there was nothing between this foxhole and Bastogne but Germans.
Footsteps, fast and hard, and then a shape skidded into the ditch, a welcome warmth against Donnie’s back.
“Nothing,” hissed Henry Grady, his teeth chattering. “Can’t reach Hayling, can’t reach division neither.”
Donnie swore, cold locking the word inside his mouth. He turned away from the inferno, sliding down the side of the foxhole and pulling his coat tight against his neck. The others hunkered down around him, their eyes wet with fear, their skin as white and as delicate as bone china. Four boys, and even if they pooled their years they’d be well short of a century. He was the oldest, at twenty-three. Eddie was the youngest, eighteen but looking half that as he pushed his helmet up from his nose and sneezed quietly into his sleeve.
“What now?” said Mike, patting his pockets for a cigarette he didn’t have.
“We’re cut off,” said Eddie, sniffing. “Right?”
Donnie nodded. They’d left the front maybe thirty minutes ago. If they’d stayed for one more cup of joe then they’d never have left at all. Nobody had seen it coming. Not tanks, not here. The Germans were supposed to be exhausted, underequipped. For days now the platoon had been camped in the snow and the wind, and the most action they’d seen was a couple of firefights and a mortar attack that had fallen well wide of their foxholes.
But now? Donnie screwed his eyes shut, trying not to think about his friends back on the line, the men who had been pummeled into the earth by a fist of fire and fury. Acid boiled up his throat and it was all he could do not to cry out. They weren’t your friends, he had to scream at himself. You don’t have friends out here, you can’t have them, it costs too much.
“Donnie?” Eddie said. “What do we do?”
“We carry on,” he said eventually. Thunder ripped through the trees, a blast that made the ground tremble. There was a crack and a shuddering groan as one of the ancient trees splintered and fell. “We’ve got a mission.”
“What good’s finding Cuddy and his men gonna be now?” said Mike. “We should get back to the line, gonna need everyone they can get.”
“You think the four of us can change what’s goin’ on back there?” Eddie said, his voice a shrill whine. “We’ll get burned up along with the rest of ’em.”
“You’re yella, Argento,” said Mike. He turned to Donnie. “You, too, Corporal.” He spat out that word as if to say, We pretty much got the same rank, you and me, except for that extra chevron. “You’re yella, too, if you don’t take us back.”
“We’ve got orders, Private,” Donnie said, meeting Mike’s dark eyes and holding them until the other man looked away. “We find Sergeant Cudden, we find his men.”
“Yella,” muttered Mike in disgust. And it was true. Donnie was more scared than he had ever been, and wasn’t it better to march into the forest, into the cold, empty night with death at their backs, than to step further into the hellmouth, to give themselves up to the flames? He tightened his grip on his Garand, his fingers frozen to the metal. Shooting at tanks with this would be like throwing pebbles, especially when they had less than fifty rounds among them.
He waited for the tremors of another detonation to fade, then peeked over the top of the foxhole. The forest was illuminated by golden light, every knot on every trunk picked out in perfect detail. There were no shapes in the flames, nothing human. But it wouldn’t be long before the German infantry moved in, rounding up the wounded and hunting down those who fled.
“Come on,” Donnie said, clambering out, and offering a hand to Eddie. “Let’s move.”
It was two days ago that Sergeant Bill Cudden had led a squad of seven men away from the front. Their mission was to head north, then cross over into enemy territory, to find a way into a small logging village where the Germans were camped, and to blow it to kingdom come. It was about as dangerous as assignments got, but all eight men had volunteered without so much as a pause for breath between them. Donnie knew because he’d been there, too, and when the call had come he’d kept his hands tucked into the warmth of his armpits and his eyes locked on his shoes.
Because you’re yella, he told himself in Mike’s Jersey accent, and his shame was like a creature biting at the inside of his throat. But he’d seen death. He’d seen men punctured by bullets, their limbs blown off, their teeth shattered. He’d seen what men were made of, and how easy it was to turn them inside out—he’d done it himself with his rifle and his grenades. But worse, he’d seen what happened to their eyes as they writhed on the ground waiting for the medic, for morphine. He’d seen death in that blinking wetness. He’d seen the terrible, gaping oblivion that waited for all of them.
He realized Eddie was talking to him. The kid was by his side, so close that they could have been walking a three-legged race. The front was an hour or so behind them now, far enough that the light from the fires had faded. But night still hadn’t been allowed to fall here, even though the stars occasionally peeked through the motionless canopy, even though the moon sat on the branches like a fat, silver-faced owl. Light seemed to radiate from the snow, unearthly, unreal, as if this forest and everything in it had been painted over a glowing bulb.
He shivered as Eddie called his name again.
“What is it, Private?” he said.
“Got a girl at home?”
Donnie frowned. They’d already had this conversation, sitting in a foxhole on the front drinking coffee and imagining themselves back on a stoop in San Fran or Chicago. He turned to remind Eddie, then saw the kid’s face, so drawn that it looked as if somebody had scooped out the meat from under his skin. His eyes were on the ground, watching for loose branches and stumps, which he hopped over like a rabbit, pushing his helmet back after every fumbling leap. The boy glanced up with a nervous smile and it seemed as though he’d lost another five years between the front and here, as if the forest were pickpocketing them from him every time his back was turned.
Please, sir, his face said. Tell me again, because it’s too quiet here, just talk to me.
“Yeah, sure I do,” Donnie said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a photo. “Betty, she’s a looker, right? And waiting for me.”
The Ingrid Bergman double that stared back from the photo was called Betty, although she wasn’t his sweetheart. She was his next-door neighbor back in Lafayette and they’d been friends since before they could walk. But everyone needed somebody to take to the front with them, and when he’d asked her for a photo to show the boys she’d been more than happy to pose as his beloved. Betty. Sweet Betty Marmalade, he’d called her when they were growing up. He couldn’t remember why.
“She’s real pretty,” Eddie said, his teeth chattering. “Wish I had a girl like that to keep me warm at night.”
“Plenty of time,” Donnie said, clapping an arm down on the kid’s shoulder and feeling the icy air nudge its way into his coat. “You’ll be a hero when you get home, all the girls will want a piece of Eddie Argento. You’ll need to keep hold of your rifle to beat them back.”
Eddie giggled, nudging his helmet up.
“I know, kiddo,” Donnie said. “I know.”
“Much longer?” Eddie asked, and Donnie thought he was talking about the war until the kid nodded into the trees. Henry was up there, on point. He was a scout, and a good one. He’d been the guy to suggest going after Cuddy and his squad when they didn’t radio in on their first night. This time there hadn’t been a call for volunteers, their platoon sergeant had just picked the men who happened to be sitting in the same hole—Donnie, Eddie and Mike—to go with him.
“Not sure,” Donnie said. “No way of telling how far they got.” They had been supposed to cut out and around, flank any Nazi lookout posts along the front, then sweep in when they got to the village. That meant moving pretty far north before heading east. “Henry’ll know, he’ll find them.”
And right then he knew that he and Eddie were thinking exactly the same thing. They were hoping that they wouldn’t find them, because then they’d find out what happened to them. And when a squad didn’t radio in when it was supposed to, didn’t make contact for a whole twenty-four hours, that could only be bad news.
They stumbled along, leaving a trail of ragged breaths behind them. And Christ was it quiet now, no wind to blow the pines, no creatures chattering, not even the distant thunder from the front. The forest was gripped by a profound, deafening silence—as if it were holding its breath, as if it were watching them go. How old is it here? Donnie wondered. How many centuries have these trees stood sentinel? He had never in his life felt so insubstantial, so fleeting, as here among these voiceless methuselahs, this ancient and unforgiving place. It would swallow them all whole as punishment for their trespass, without making a single sound—the way a shark swallows a fish whole in the deep, dark ocean. Nobody would ever know. Is that what happened to Cuddy’s squad? Not shot, not captured, just devoured in an instant as the snow and the dirt opened up beneath them then closed over their heads. Here one second, gone the next, and trapped for all eternity.
The forest watched them walk. The lunatic moon grinned down at them. And it was all he could do not to scream.
Donnie saw Henry signaling up ahead and instinctively ducked down, fumbling for the rifle looped over his shoulder. Eddie crashed to a heap beside him, swearing under his breath as he reached for his own weapon.
Henry was a hundred yards away, crouched against a shallow bank, just a smudge of green against the dirty snow. His hand was raised, palm out, which meant he’d spotted something in front of him. Donnie checked his watch, blowing frost from the glass face to see that it was just after midnight. They’d been walking for nearly three hours now, which put them roughly nine miles off the front and still following Cuddy’s tracks.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Mike crouched against a tree nursing his Garand, his jaw flexing relentlessly as he chowed down on some gum.
“Hold here,” he whispered to Eddie. He bolted as quietly as possible to Henry, skidding down beside him in a storm of white powder. “What is it, Private?”
“Hell if I know,” Henry said, pure Mississippi. “But somethin’s moving up there.”
Donnie eased his head up over the bank to see the same forest—the same trees, the same snow, as if they were walking along an endless, changeless Möbius strip. There was no sign of movement. He could have been looking at a photograph, and the forest still possessed that same pregnant stillness, as if it was waiting with bated breath for his next move.
Then he saw it, something fluttering behind the scrappy skirt of a large conifer—there for an instant, then devoured once again by stillness. He eased his rifle onto the tip of the bank, his heart drumming as if to make up for the silence. It might be a bird, a deer maybe. But it might just as easily be a German patrol scouting south or west, maybe even tracking them up from the front. He waited, counting his heartbeats—three for every second—suddenly sweating despite the cold. There it was again, a flicker of color darting out and back in again, like a head popping up from cover. It could have been their mirror image, and Donnie imagined the four of them running into themselves, their doppelgängers. It was insane, but this forest, definitely not sane, felt as if it could bend reality around in splintered circles.
Donnie glanced back, waving the others forward. Then he turned to Henry. “Keep your gun on it, whatever it is, I’ll go around.”
“Sir.” Henry nodded, lining up his weapon. Donnie waited for Mike and Eddie to scuffle down beside him; then he shrugged off his pack and crawled along the bank to his right, trying not to make a sound even though each chattering breath sounded, to him, like a Liberator taking off. The conifers were thick here, growing up on either side of him, their branches bowed with needles and snow. He felt safer in their shadows, and it was tempting to crawl into the darkness beneath their arms and just wait there for the war to end. But he pushed on, his hands numb, until the pines thinned.
There was no bank here, just flat ground, and he edged out as slowly as he could. He located the tree they had been watching before, and from this angle he could see the shape there. It was a lump, maybe human-sized, and scraps of cloth fluttered from it in a breeze that Donnie couldn’t feel. The whole thing shifted, seeming to breathe in and out.
He slid his rifle back over his shoulder and pulled his .45 from its holster. Moving this way was easier, and he slid through the forest without a sound. Glancing to his side he saw Mike moving parallel to him on the other flank, the Garand stock wedged against his shoulder. They walked in time, closing in on either side of the shape that shuddered and shook against the tree.
When they were close enough, Donnie glanced at Mike, held up three fingers, then two, then one, and together they charged.
“Don’t move!” Donnie yelled, almost tripping over his own feet as he ran around the tree. “Don’t you—”
The gunshot almost deafened him, and this time he did lose his footing, dropping to his knees. Mike ran up, his rifle smoking, as the shape thrashed against the tree.
“Christ,” said Donnie, hearing his pulse in the word. It was a parachute, ripped and torn and held in place by a satchel. He put his finger through the hole that Mike’s shot had made. “I think you killed it.”
“Screw you,” Mike said. “It was moving. I thought it was going for a gun.”
Eddie and Henry appeared, lowering their weapons when they realized there wasn’t any danger.
“Weird,” said Eddie. “What’s that doing all the way out here?”
“And is it one of ours?” Donnie said, and would have added more if he hadn’t felt the cold steel of a gun against the back of his neck and heard a whisper in his ear, the accent unmistakable:
“No. It isn’t.”
* * *
“Drop the guns. I will not hesitate, boys, to blow your goddamned heads clean off.”
Donnie did what he was told. He didn’t think he could hang on to his pistol even if he’d wanted to, the weight of it suddenly unbearable. It thudded into the snow, followed by two rifles. Mike held on to his, looking at whoever was behind Donnie with a sneer on his face.
“Yeah?” he grunted. “I don’t think so.”
The pressure on the back of Donnie’s neck increased.
“I do,” said the voice, little more than a whisper.
“Drop it,” Donnie ordered. Mike hesitated a moment longer, then let the gun slide from his fingers. “We’re not alone,” Donnie went on, hoping the lie wouldn’t show. “There’s a bunch more of us on the way.”
“You Yanks,” said the voice, louder now and too high, too musical. “Always the same with your bravado and your shoot-first-ask-questions-later and your gum.” The weapon was lifted from Donnie’s neck, the skin there prickling. “I could hear you chewing from a mile away, and they must be able to smell Juicy Fruit all the way over in Berlin. Turn around, let’s take a look at you.”
Frowning, Donnie did as he was told, making sure to keep his hands well out from his sides. Standing there was a pilot, dressed in the uniform of the British Royal Air Force. He was wearing a leather flying helmet, and there was a scarf pulled tight around his mouth. He was small, at least six inches shorter than Eddie; painfully thin, too. He was holding a Webley, the pistol enormous in his slender, gloved hands.
“What’s your name and rank?” he asked.
“Donnie. Corporal Donnie Brixton.”
“Which unit are you with?”
“506th Infantry,” Donnie said after a pause.
“506th? What’s your nickname?”
“Why?” asked Mike.
“So I know you’re not Nazi spies. Your nickname, tell me.”
“Currahees,” said Donnie.
“Good.” The pilot lowered his weapon, but he didn’t take his finger from the trigger.
“What about you?” Donnie asked. “Didn’t think the Brits had any men this far out.”
“And you were right.” He removed his helmet and loosed a cascade of brown hair, then tugged at the scarf to reveal a face that belonged on the front of Titter magazine. Donnie’s jaw dropped, and the others must have had a similar reaction, because the girl laughed at their expressions, a sound that seemed to make the forest shrink back.
“Now I can see your gum as well as smell it, thanks, boys.”
“You’re a woman,” said Mike, picking up his rifle.
“And you’re a sharp one,” she replied.
“What are you doing out here?” Donnie asked, collecting his own pistol and holstering it. “Are you alone?”
She nodded, tucking her weapon into a huge pocket in her jacket.
“I was escorting a bombing run, heading east, AAs took me down.”
“But you’re a broad,” said Mike.
“Your friend there,” she said, leaning in to Donnie and tapping her temple. “Is he shell-shocked? Or just a little slow?”
“Got to admit it’s a little weird, Corporal,” said Henry. “Out here alone, a woman. How do we know this isn’t a trap?”
“Yes,” said the girl, her voice laced with sarcasm. “I’m German. The Führer ordered me out here especially to lure down four hopeless American boys, all of whom—presuming, Mr. Brixton, that you are the leader of this ragtag group and you’re a corporal—have attained the superior rank of privates.” She barged between Donnie and Mike, picking up her parachute and shaking it loose. With a deft swirl she wrapped it around her shoulders, tucking it into the collar of her jacket. Then she looped her satchel over her shoulder to hold the improvised cape in place. “The success of the Nazi war effort and the Third Reich depends entirely on me luring you lot into a cunning trap. So come on, follow me.”
Donnie was speechless. He looked at Mike, who was fuming, then at Henry and Eddie, who both shrugged. After what seemed like an eternity he finally opened his mouth.
“What’s your name?”
She grinned at him.
“Flight Sergeant Joan Forbes.” She snapped a sharp British salute. “His Majesty’s Royal Air Force.”
“We heard the antiaircraft guns, the night before last, right?”
Donnie stoked the fire as he spoke, the timid flames topped with his steel helmet and surrounded by a perimeter of wood to conceal the light. All five of them hunkered around it, shoulder against shoulder, grateful for the warmth even though it was barely enough to seep through their gloves into the numb flesh of their fingers. Water stirred inside the helmet, slowly coming to the boil.
“Yes,” said Joan, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear and staring into the flames. She was remarkably skinny, her face gaunt with shadows beneath her sharp cheekbones. And yet there was no denying she was attractive, dazzlingly so in the firelight, and when she smiled her eyes brightened in a way that made Donnie’s throat tighten. She was still wearing her parachute like a shawl, the white silk almost invisible against the eerie glow of the snow, and she clutched her satchel to her chest. “We were heading for Heilbronn, follow-up raids. I was an escort, but I took some flak and that was that.”
“What do you expect?” Mike said. “Letting a broad fly a plane. Only you Brits would be that stupid. What next? Pig pilots?”
He snorted at his own joke, but Joan didn’t even seem to hear him.
“I managed to bail, landed a few miles north of here. Had no idea where I was, other than smack bang in the middle of the Ardennes. But I knew Allied forces had to be south of my position, so I headed this way.”
“What’s with the ’chute?” asked Eddie.
“I wasn’t lying when I said I heard you from a mile away. Didn’t know if you were good guys or bad guys, so I left it there as a decoy and waited to see who approached. Luckily for me, it was you chaps.”
“Yeah, you are lucky,” said Mike. “Lucky we didn’t spot you first and think you were a German.”
“Yes, I’m still quaking in my boots, Private Levy, at the thought of what might have happened had you actually been walking with your eyes open and your mind on the job.”
Her sarcastic humor was strangely infectious and Donnie found himself smiling. For some reason, even though the forest remained graveyard quiet, even though the moon still loomed overhead like a dangerous, grinning fool, some of the fear had ebbed away. Maybe it was having a woman for company, it made him think of home, of Betty next door. It made him feel safe.
“Seriously, though,” he said. “I didn’t think you girls were allowed in the RAF.”
“Technically we’re not,” she said. “Technically I’m in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, but that’s such a mouthful. Most of us WAAFs are just civvies, we transport planes at home, and do a great deal more to keep our boys safe on the front.”
“And you?” Donnie asked.
“Well let’s just say when you can outfly and outgun and outswear every single chauvinistic arse of a pilot in the King’s Air Force then they can’t keep you away from the action for long. I convinced them to give me a Spitfire and there you have it. Sixteen successful missions then one lucky Kraut with an 88 and here I am drinking tea with four fine American gentlemen.”
“Coffee,” said Donnie, fishing a tin from his pack and tipping some pre-roasted beans into the boiling water. The smell of it seemed to fill the air instantly, reinforcing that feeling of calm. “And I’m not sure if we qualify as gentlemen.”
He gave the coffee a stir with his knife, then gestured to the helmet. “No cups, I’m afraid.”
“As long as it’s hot,” said Joan, scooping up the helmet and taking a mouthful. She winced as she swallowed, then passed it to Eddie. “What about you? Why so far from your foxholes?”
“We’re looking for someone,” said Donnie. “A sergeant left camp a day and a half ago, took seven men with him. Then they disappeared, haven’t checked in since. We were sent out to find them.”
“Or to find out what happened to them,” added Henry.
“Right,” said Donnie. “So . . .”
He trailed off when he saw Joan’s face. It seemed to have grown thinner, almost skeletal, her lips a razor-thin line. She glanced at him—her eyes dark, no trace left of that brightness, that sparkle—then quickly back at the fire.
“What?” Donnie asked.
“Eight men, you say? Were they heading north?”
“Yes, did you see them?”
She didn’t reply, lost in the quiet rage of the flames.
“Don’t go after them,” she said, and with that soft whisper the forest found its power once again, the silence crashing down around him with such force that even the fire seemed to shrink. She looked up at him again and Donnie’s skin crinkled into gooseflesh. “Turn back, there’s nothing for you to find up there. Nothing good.”
“What do you mean?” Donnie just about managed to find the words. “Did you see them?”
“I saw,” she started, swallowing hard. “I don’t know, I don’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was real. But trust me, something bad happened to them. Your friends are gone, you can’t help them. And if you try . . .”
They all watched her with wide eyes, watched her seem to shrink into her parachute.
“If you try, if you go after them, then something bad is going to happen to you, too.”
“I don’t trust her.”
Mike spat the words into Donnie’s ear even though there was no way Joan could hear him. She stood by the charred remains of the fire twenty yards away drinking the last few swigs of coffee from the helmet. Eddie was chatting to her, his arms gesticulating wildly, although Donnie couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“There’s a reason she doesn’t want us to keep going. Something she ain’t telling us. I know it.”
“Like what, Mike?”
“How the hell should I know? Ask me, she’s probably a spy. Hitler’s got a whole army of ’em, broads just like her who sound right and look right but who’ll gut you while you’re swooning over ’em. She already admitted she was sent here to trap us.”
“She was joking.”
“Yeah? Maybe, maybe not. She’s been sent to knock us off the trail. There’s something up there, something they don’t want us to find. A base, or a weapon, maybe just a load more Hun troops ready to make the push down to Bastogne. Maybe Adolf himself is up there wearin’ furs and makin’ snowmen.”
“So why don’t the Germans just kill us?” Donnie asked.
“Because it causes too many questions. Cuddy dies and they send us. We die and they send someone else. They die and sooner or later the whole 101st marches up here to find out what’s going on. No, they’re sly. She’s sly. She scares us off south and we go back sayin’ we didn’t find anything and leave them well alone.”
Donnie had to admit that he had a point. If Joan was a spy, a German agent, then that’s exactly what she’d be doing. But she wasn’t. He didn’t know how, but he was sure of it.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Because we’re not turning around. Hell, we couldn’t if we wanted to, there’s nothing back there but Panzers. We keep going, we find whatever it was she saw and we know for sure what happened to Cuddy.”
“And her?” Mike said. “Somethin’ tells me she ain’t gonna come with us.”
Donnie sighed, pulling his collar tight around his neck, the night so cold he could have been hollow, a breeze blowing inside him from his feet all the way up to his skull. Joan must have sensed him looking, because she turned and smiled, and in that smile he saw that even though she was strong, even though she could probably survive out here longer than any of them, she didn’t want to be on her own. Out here, being on your own would make someone as crazy as the forest and the moon.
“She’s one of us,” he said, patting Mike on the shoulder. “She’ll come.”
He left Mike to his muttered curses, walking back to the fire.
“Empty?” he asked Joan, nodding at his helmet. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’d put my tin back on and soaked myself.”
She smiled, handing it to him. There were a couple of mouthfuls sloshing around inside and he knocked them back, grateful for what little warmth the coffee still had. He tipped the beans away, then planted the helmet back on his head.
“We’re going north,” he said.
“But—” Eddie started.
“North, those are our orders. I believe you, that you saw something. But we have to see it for ourselves.”
“You won’t like it,” Joan said, getting to her feet. “I can promise you that.”
“I don’t like anything I see in this place, but I’ve got a job to do. We all have.” He picked up his pack, heaving it onto his back. “You with us?”
She sighed. “Well, seeing as I’m out here with no rations, no map, no clue to where I am—not to mention what you’ve told me about the Germans moving in south of here—I don’t really know what other choice I have. Lead the way, Corporal.”
Donnie nodded at Henry, who started trudging through the snow. Eddie followed, stumbling, then Joan. Donnie kicked out the fire, sweeping snow over the ash to hide it. Then he set off after them, hearing Mike right behind him, the other man still mumbling: “I don’t trust her.”
It was snowing again, had been for maybe fifteen minutes now. The flakes drifted down slowly, delicately, but their graceful beauty was an illusion, one quickly spoiled as the world began to disappear. It was as if somebody was taking a giant eraser to the forest, wiping out the tops of the trees, then the branches, then the trunks, and finally the ground, leaving them in an ocean of utter nothingness where they would quickly drown. Out here, snow was as dangerous as mortar shells. And it wouldn’t be a quick death, no, nor a peaceful one. It would be a protracted, painful end as the chill crept through your marrow, locking itself in your bones and muscles, paralyzing you like a spider bite and leaving you for the forest to devour at its leisure.
“You see anything at all up there?” Donnie called ahead to Henry. “You want to stop?”
“No, this is right,” said Joan from Donnie’s side, checking her own compass. “We haven’t strayed off this bearing, and neither did I coming south. Kept the line as straight as I could in case I had to retrace my steps.”
“How much further?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. My watch got broken when I bailed. But it was after nightfall when I found the . . . When I found your friends. Maybe eight or nine. Maybe later. It won’t be much longer.”
Donnie nodded. They’d have to stop again soon anyway and eat something. They had packed enough rations for three days, but now they had an extra mouth to feed, and when the weather was like this even the egg disappeared fast. With any luck they’d find out what happened to Cuddy tonight; then they could worry about what came next. They couldn’t turn around and head back to an occupied camp, but there were Allied positions west of here that they could trek to in a day or two.
As impossible as it was, the snow had plunged the forest into even greater depths of silence. Donnie felt like he was underwater, kept swallowing to pop his ears the same way he did when he dived too deep in the quarry back home. Occasionally there was the whipcrack of a branch breaking under the weight of the fall, but other than that the crunch of their feet in the fresh drifts, and the chattering of their teeth, was the only sound.
“So,” he said, wanting to speak, to say anything to make the silence less deafening. “You got a fella back home?”
“Two,” Joan said, looking at him over her shoulder. Her skin was icy blue, her eyes the color of chestnuts.
“I have two fellas,” she said this with a clumsy American accent, “and a lady, too.”
Donnie tried to whistle, but the cold turned it into a sigh.
“I didn’t take you for that kind of girl.”
“I’m not,” she said, laughing. “I’m engaged, to a dope named William. We’ve got two kids already, George and Grace.”
“Seriously?” Donnie said. “You don’t look old enough.”
“Thank you. I’m probably older than you think. George is six, I had him when I was twenty-one, before the war. Grace is four, from back when I’d never have dreamed of being up in a Spitfire.”
“Got a picture?”
Joan bent down and reached into her boot. She pulled out a transparent envelope which contained a letter and a photograph. He recognized the letter. They all had one tucked away in a pocket; I’m sorry I didn’t make it home, please don’t forget me, I love you. She handed him the photo. It had obviously been taken in a studio: a tall, bony man wearing glasses and a goofy grin; a kid on each knee, the little girl clutching a doll and looking out of the shot, her face blurred as though she’d turned just as the picture had been taken, the boy fair-haired and holding a toy plane above his head. Joan was there, too, standing behind the others in a dress uniform as if she were a canvas backdrop, rounder in the face, her cheeks flushed, her hair up, and a smile that could have lit the scene without a single photographer’s flash.
Beautiful, Donnie nearly said, settling for, “You miss them?”
“Of course,” Joan said, tucking the picture back in the envelope and sliding it inside her boot. “More than anything. Well, the little ones anyway. William, he’s . . . he’s what we call a wet blanket. But he’s good, and he’s safe, and he loves me. He works for the government, nothing important, just number crunching in Whitehall.”
“Wet blanket, eh? Why you with him?”
Joan shrugged, obviously embarrassed.
“He’s my parachute. When I come back, when I come home after a mission, he makes sure I land safely.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, but didn’t. “What about you?”
“A gal? No.” He shook his head and thought of Betty, Betty his neighbor, his best friend, Sweet Betty Marmalade who got married a year ago to a milkman called Joe. “No, I kind of missed the boat on that one. We maybe had—”
Donnie turned, saw Mike a dozen yards behind them half lost in the falling snow. He was holding up his hand. Donnie stopped, making the same signal to Henry and Eddie up front.
“Trouble?” said Joan.
“I hope not,” he replied, scampering over his own footprints until he reached Mike. The other man was staring the way they had just come, the snow a curtain of gauze which smudged everything into nothing. Donnie stared into the forest, turned to bone by the idiot moon, and the forest seemed to stare back.
“What is it, Mike?” he asked. Mike didn’t reply, he didn’t blink. Donnie’s flesh squirmed, and he swore he could feel somebody’s eyes crawling over him. He squinted into the haze, nothing there aside from the sentient trees thinking their old, slow thoughts.
Mike turned to him, and there was fear there in the darkness of his eyes and the way his jaw clenched. Donnie didn’t like it. Mike was a sonofabitch, but he was a brave sonofabitch, no doubt about it. He was too stupid to be anything other than brave.
“What is it?” Donnie repeated.
“Can’t you see it?” he whispered, flecks of spit in the corners of his mouth.
“See what?” Donnie said, shaking his head. “Mike, there’s nothing there, just trees.”
“Between the trees,” he replied, his words little more than breath. “Don’t you see them?”
Donnie looked into the snow. He looked between the trees, where the flakes fell and danced in tight spirals. He looked and did not blink, looked at those shifting loops of white against white which seemed for an instant to form shapes there—not quite solid, not quite not, like figures waiting just under the skin of the world—then split apart to be nothing more than snow again. He looked, and he saw, and felt the forest peel away a piece of his sanity as a trophy.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Mike’s sleeve and dragging him away. “There’s nothing there. Nothing real.”
Mike resisted for a moment, then turned and followed, still not blinking.
“Nothing real,” Donnie insisted.
But something was definitely watching. Something with a smile on its face.
They were the first words that anyone had spoken for over half an hour, and the forest gobbled them up so quickly that Donnie had to ask Joan to repeat them.
“This is it, I’m sure of it,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. “Just over there.”
Henry had stopped at a shallow gully, and when Donnie caught up he saw that the water below—what little of it wasn’t hidden by the fall—had frozen. On the other side was a bank that rose to a tight-knit line of short, fat pines.
“You sure?” Donnie asked, unclipping his holster and trying to pull out his pistol. His fingers were too numb, and he went for his Garand instead, swiveling the rifle into position.
“Looks pretty quiet,” said Henry. “No tracks.”
The snow had stopped a while back, although the trees continued to shed a mist of flakes. Nobody had been this way for at least thirty minutes, unless they’d thought to brush over their footprints as they went.
“I remember I came through those bushes so fast I didn’t see the ditch,” Joan said. “Nearly broke my neck.”
“What were you running from?” asked Eddie, his face mouse-like in its apprehension. Joan looked at him.
“I told you. Something bad.”
For a while, nobody moved; they just stared at the bank opposite and felt the silence drip from it in great, invisible chunks.
“It won’t do any good to go over there,” Joan said.
“This is crazy,” said Mike, pushing between them, rifle in his hands. “She’s a broad. You coming or not?”
He scrambled down the side of the gully, and managed to keep his feet as he stepped gingerly over the ice and up the other side. Donnie didn’t look at Joan again. He was frightened that if he did, if he met her eyes, he’d somehow see what she had seen and he wouldn’t be able to find the strength to carry on. He waited for Henry to move, for Eddie to slide down on his backside; then he half jumped and half fell onto the frozen river. Mike was waiting for him, hand extended, and Donnie let the man haul him up. When he turned, Joan was still standing there, a ghost against the glowing night, the snow on her helmet and silk parachute shawl making her look almost transparent, fading fast. Maybe we are specters, Donnie thought. Maybe we died back there, somewhere, and this is where we spend eternity.
“Joan,” he called, if only an attempt to keep her here, to stop her from dissolving into the night. “Come on. We’re safer together.”
She shook her head, but made her way across the stream anyway.
“A hundred feet, maybe,” she said as he carefully pulled her almost weightless frame up the bank. “Can’t be any more than that.”
Mike took the lead this time, walking too fast as if to prove that there was nothing to fear. But Donnie remembered his face, his grinding jaw—something between the trees—and knew that they were all feeling that same tug of panic in their guts. He jogged a little to catch up with him, rifle ready.
“Keep your eyes open, Private,” he said. “Could be anything up here. And spread out, all of you, five-meter intervals.”
The men fanned to either side of him, treading carefully, hunched over their rifles. There was nothing different about this stretch of forest—the same trees, the same snow, the same moon—and yet the pressure in Donnie’s ears was even greater, almost painful, like being back inside the transport plane as it took off from England heading into Fortress Europe. His pulse sounded as if something were furiously grinding its teeth inside him.
“Sir,” said Henry, nudging his Garand forward. “Over there.”
He saw them. Shapes between the trees. Only these weren’t phantoms of snow and wind. He lifted his rifle, peering down the sight as he took step after stumbling step.
“That’s Cuddy,” said Eddie. “Oh Christ, it’s him.”
And it was. Sergeant Bill Cudden stood there on the edge of a small clearing, motionless. There was something wrong with his face, and it took Donnie a moment to understand what.
It wasn’t attached to anything.
It had been cut loose, and hung like a flag from the top of a wooden man. Moonlight shone through the eyes and mouth, nestled like a halo in his hair, giving him the appearance of a saint. His body was a collection of sticks and branches, standing maybe eight or nine feet tall, a rifle for one leg. A coat had been draped over his shoulders, twigs poking from the bloodied cuffs and the pockets stuffed with straw. Donnie stared at him, at this human doll, and felt something break loose in the engine of his mind.
“No,” somebody sobbed. “It isn’t . . . It can’t be.”
Donnie staggered forward, his rifle hanging by his side, forgotten. Cuddy hadn’t suffered his fate alone. Two more men had been propped around the circumference of the clearing, each just as tall, each facing inward as if attending a bizarre midnight rendezvous of quiet giants. They, too, were puppets of flesh and wood, their faces leather masks worn by crude, knotted mannequins. One—it was Albert Connaught, Donnie thought—held his helmet against his chest with twig fingers, like a pious man entering a church. The other, unrecognizable, had a deer’s skull for a torso, the antlers pushing up the arms of his jacket as if he had frozen midway through a lumbering dance. His legs were saplings thrust through the eye sockets of his improvised chest.
The world came undone, spinning on a brand-new axis. Donnie swung in a wild circle, the dead men surrounding him, and were they closing in, taking clumsy steps with their stick-legs, their gaping mouths uttering voiceless truths? He felt his body give way, shaking hard, and it was only the adrenaline that kept him on his feet, the thought that if he lost it here then soon it would be his face hanging there, eyes like buttonholes.
He looked back, saw Eddie on his knees clutching at his throat, Henry and Mike to either side of him, suddenly aged. And Joan, standing there shaking her head as she sobbed into her hand, I told you not to come. I told you it was something bad. But never in his life could he have understood.
He opened his mouth, croaked out a word, cleared his throat and tried again: “Mike.”
“Private Levy, Private Grady, look at me.”
Mike’s head swiveled around on his shoulders like a mill wheel, his bloodshot eyes fixing on Donnie.
“Pull yourself together,” he said. “Both of you. That’s an order. And get Eddie on his feet. Do it!”
Mike flinched at the barked command. He hooked an arm under Eddie’s armpit, hoisting him up. Donnie walked over and cradled the boy’s head.
“Eddie,” he said to a gaze that was about as far from here as it was possible to be. “Eddie, look at me.”
He did, although it took an age for him to focus. He was going into shock. It usually happened with an injury, a bullet wound or shrapnel, but Donnie had seen minds snap for plenty of other reasons, too. He clicked his fingers until he had the kid’s full attention.
“Listen, Eddie, it’s not real. It’s some Nazi trick. You know what they’re like, they’ll try anything to get into our heads. You, uh, you remember those pamphlets Gunny found back in Bastogne? The ones about the gas?”
“The gas that makes your pecker fall off?” Eddie said, a distant glimmer of a smile.
“Yeah, the pecker gas. All lies, Eddie, lies. Scaring us is half the battle.”
“But that’s Cuddy,” Eddie said, trying to look over Donnie’s shoulder. Donnie held him in place, kept eye contact.
“Cuddy’s dead. But is that any different to the other guys we’ve lost? Davidson, Crawford on that mine. This is war, and you’ve seen worse. We all have.”
Eddie swallowed; then he nodded, some of the color seeming to find its way back into his eyes.
“Don’t let them get to you, kiddo, okay?”
He let him go, left his arms hanging there in case Eddie slumped to the ground again. But the boy stayed standing. Donnie checked Mike, then Henry, both pale but alert. Then he walked to Joan.
“You see anything else?” he asked. She shook her head, then nodded it, tears as bright as diamonds etching down her cheeks.
“The ground. In the snow, there was blood. A pattern.”
“A pattern?” he said, and he realized he was snapping at her, leaning in too close. “What kind of pattern. A swastika? What?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “Something with circles.”
Donnie swore, marching back into the clearing, refusing to look up at the crinkled, old-men faces of his friends. Fresh snow had fallen here as it had everywhere else, and he kicked it away until he found the crimson ice below, sweeping his way from side to side, back to front, until he stood in the center of a spiderweb of frozen blood that ran from corpse to corpse to corpse in perfect symmetry.
Three circles, one beneath each body, arranged in a triangle and connected by lines.
And in the middle, right beneath his feet, four words that even Donnie’s halting German could translate: Sie sind alle gerettet.
They are all saved.
“Mike, secure a perimeter, make sure nobody else is here. Henry, get on the radio and see if you can find the nearest squad.” Donnie paced back and forth just outside the clearing, helmet off, running a hand through his hair. “Eddie.” The boy stood like a puppet in the rack, strings slack. “Eddie! I need you to check for prints, for broken trees, anything that might tell us what happened to the rest of the squad.”
“We’re not going after them,” he replied, a statement rather than a question. His face looked so drawn that it too seemed as though it had been worked loose.
“No, we’re out of here just as soon as we have coordinates. Whatever happened to the rest of Cuddy’s men . . . We can’t help them, not on our own, not now.”
He felt sick for saying it, and he knew the others could see the cowardice in his eyes. But he could see it in them, too, even in Mike, who looked away without a single word of protest. Nobody would argue, not this time. If the rest of Cuddy’s squad was still alive, and that was doubtful, then they’d be far from here by now, probably heading for a POW camp or a firing line or something. Do they still have their faces? he wondered, and saw them marching through the forest, a line of men with moons for heads. He almost giggled, he almost broke.
“But if we have an idea of which direction they went in,” he said. “Then we’ve got something to report.”
Eddie nodded, pushing his helmet up.
“Go with Mike,” Donnie told him. “Stay close, just keep your eyes open, find out where they went.”
“Sir,” Eddie said. He walked to Mike, so small and so close that he could have been a kid hanging on to his father’s coattail.
“Keep your eyes open,” Donnie repeated. “Just call if you see anything.”
They crunched off into the snow, keeping well wide of the clearing and its conference of the dead as they vanished behind the pines. Henry had the radio out and was speaking softly into the handset. Donnie wiped a hand over his face, the skin there so cold it was burning.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Joan said quietly from his side. “Mutilations, yes, but never skinned and posed like . . . like china dolls. I don’t understand it.”
“They’re trying to scare us,” Donnie said.
“Out here? Miles away from the front? Who is going to see it, Donnie, aside from the birds?”
“They must have known we’d come looking,” he floundered.
“And all this just for you, a handful of boys? It must have taken hours. It’s . . . It’s like something a child would do, making toys and dressing them. And the words, gerettet. Saved? How on earth are they saved?”
Donnie’s head was ringing, that same pressure, as if something up there was about to blow. He stepped away, trying to think of something else, trying to think of home—of Betty laughing on his stoop, Betty taking his hand, kissing his fingers, Betty leaving with tears in her eyes—until the pain shifted and dulled.
“You get anything?” he asked Henry. The man looked up, shaking his head. “Ah, screw this, let’s get the hell out of here.” He put on his helmet, shouting: “Mike, Eddie, get back here.”
“What about the radio?” Henry asked.
“Forget it, we’ll try again west of here.”
“And them?” Joan asked, nodding into the clearing. “We can’t leave them like that.”
“They’re probably rigged,” he said, and he wasn’t sure if he believed that or not, but there was absolutely no way that he could go in there and peel those men’s faces from their mounts. “Grenades, claymores maybe. We can’t risk it. Mike, Eddie, I said get back here now!”
Something answered him, a soft cry that turned his bones to snow. He looked at Joan to make sure she had heard it, too, and she had, because she was reaching into her pocket for the Webley. Donnie swiveled his rifle around as the noise was repeated, more animal than human, coming from the direction of the clearing.
Don’t go in there, he told himself. Because you’ll never come out again, not as a sane man anyway.
The sound again, a mewling that ebbed into a wet purr. It was impossible to tell how loud it was, or how close. He stepped toward Cuddy as another gentle groan slipped from the dead man’s gaping mouth. He couldn’t be alive, not with the moonlight streaming through his sockets, not with a body made of wood and straw, and yet he was uttering chirruped monkey grunts that rose in pitch, becoming more and more frenzied.
Then Cuddy blinked his eyes.
“No!” said Donnie, staggering backward, waiting for the man to come after him, for them all to shamble across the clearing on sapling legs, reaching for him with dry, twig fingers. He squeezed the trigger, the Garand barking, Cuddy’s torso exploding into splinters.
The mewls became a roar, louder than an M2 spitting out rounds. Donnie fired again, still retreating, and this time a shape moved out from behind Cuddy. Donnie almost had time to feel relief before he saw that this thing too had a body of broken branches, and eyes of fathomless pitch. It unfolded itself, long arms dropping to its side, crippled by countless joints. Its torso was bent and broken, and yet when it took a step forward there was no denying the power there in every exposed muscle. The demon’s empty eyes burned into Donnie, full of anger but full of childish glee, too. It opened its mouth and unleashed another guttural, awful scream.
Then it charged.
It managed three steps before recoiling, a gout of black blood erupting from its head. Joan steadied herself by Donnie’s side, then pulled the trigger again. This time one of the creature’s eyes imploded. It howled, thrashing, and Donnie fired once, twice, again and again until the Garand pinged and the clip ejected. The creature threw itself between two pines, shedding gluts of oil-black blood. The branches cracked, the trees rustling as it forced its way through them.
“Jesus Christ,” Donnie said, or didn’t say, he couldn’t be sure. He felt a hand on his arm, Joan dragging him away from the clearing. The creature squealed in pain and something answered—a distant banshee scream, followed by another, this one closer.
“Come on!” Joan said. “Donnie, let’s go!”
“Not without Eddie and Mike,” he said, but they were both there, panting hard.
“Heard the shots,” said Mike. “What’s going on?”
“Just move,” Joan said, and they must have seen something in her face because they didn’t argue, none of them. A gargled howl, more screams, and footsteps coming from the same direction as Eddie and Mike, too large and too fast to be human. It sounded like a horse in full gallop, the earth trembling.
Donnie ran, groping in his belt for a fresh clip. He almost dropped it and forced himself to stop, slamming the eight-round into the rifle and aiming it back the way they’d come as the others sprinted past. There was something there, in the snow, and he fired twice before fear drove him onward. Henry had stopped ahead, loosing cover fire from his own Garand. Donnie grabbed him by the collar, hauling him up.
“Forget it, just go!”
It sounded like there was a zoo behind them now, like every single animal had been woken—desperate grunts and excited shrieks and those same awful forlorn cries, so full of human grief, so much like a child, that Donnie almost stopped. Don’t, his mind ordered him, because those things, whatever they are, they are what killed Cuddy and cut off his face, they are what made stickmen out of your friends. And they’ll do the same to you if they catch you.
He sped up, not caring that he might slip or hit a low branch in the unearthly gloom, just needing to be away from that clearing. He ran, they all ran, and the noises behind them grew quieter and more distant until they faded into the silence of the forest. He ran, wondering how he ever could have been frightened by the quiet when there were noises like those in the world. He kept running, running, running, so fast and so hard that he didn’t see the men in front of him until the butt of a rifle connected with his nose and the world exploded into a storm of black snow.